THERESA May’s first-day reshuffle was a ruthless affair, with A Game of Thrones-style list of bloody casualties. Yet on the same day, the appalling news from France, a country too often struck by such news of late, put her manoeuvres into cold perspective.
What the new prime minister pulled off was a startling and ruthless display, with all traces of the Cameron era almost removed. It was as if she had sent in one of those white-suited crews you see in TV crime dramas to clean up the scene-of-the-coup mess.
There were surprises amid all the changes in this exercise, which might be termed A Throne of Games, with Mrs May showing that she is now in that Tory throne and will shape the party to her wishes.
Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary was the biggest shocker, Mrs May’s wild-card present to an unimpressed world. Perhaps she has a sense of humour after all, or maybe she just wants to keep Boris out of the country, bowing and scraping his way round parts of the world where he has in the past insulted people. That’s a big map, like an old Empire map, but with the globe stained blond instead of pink.
The comings and goings are too numerous to mention here, but we cannot move forward without considering Jeremy Hunt. If Boris Johnson is the clownish wild card, Hunt is the “you-what?” joker in the pack. Hunt remains as health secretary, a role to which he seems monumentally ill suited having helped drag out the dispute with junior doctors, while also being unable to dismiss fears that he is intent on dismantling the NHS bit by shoddy bit.
Gove has gone, but what else did he expect after his backstabbing of Boris. Mrs May has taken the Michael, as it were, and shoved him out into the cold where he now belongs.
Maybe her oddest appointment lies in making the deeply Eurosceptic David Davis her Brexit Secretary, a man mostly untried in government being given a role of such unknowable complexity. Incidentally, something which hasn’t really been spelt out, perhaps because no one knows, is just how much Brexit will cost the country; how many billions will be frittered on legal fees and moving costs, on untangling the thousand ties that bind us to Europe?
Malcolm Rifkind, the former foreign secretary, praised Mrs May’s “ruthless” reshuffle and her “strategic” vision, saying it showed strong leadership. And so it does, but we won’t know if it is good leadership until we are some miles away from this quiet coup.
The most striking sacking was of hi-vis chancellor George Osborne, who almost shared the premiership with Cameron, and now finds himself without a government role of any sort.
All of this is engaging to those who like to watch politics, and interesting in that Mrs May, who has suggested that ordinary people are tired of political games, shows herself to be a ruthless player of the game.
But the news from Nice casts a shadow over everything she has done. Her display of power has, with tragic irony, been set against another exercise in brutality that shows the limits to political power. With at least 84 people dead in the third major terrorist incident in France since last November, killed as a lorry ploughed through a crowd celebrating Bastille Day, it is possible here to see just how little power politicians have over the appalling events that can strike the country they govern.
If a terrorist, or a man unhinged by his beliefs and righteous obsessions, can take a lorry and zigzag it through a crowd for more than a mile, killing men, women and children, how can a premier or president do their job?
President Hollande has had the toughest of times to fulfil his role, and here he was again, ashen-faced as he said that: “Nothing will make us yield in our will to fight terrorism. We will further strengthen our actions in Iraq and Syria. We will continue striking those who attack us on our own soil.”
This is fully understandable, although it was also the US position after the 9/11 attacks, leading to the Iraq war and all that has followed. France is bombing Isis and many will wish them well in that operation, while at the same time having no idea if it makes a difference or hits the right targets.